Moral Ontology vs. Objective Morality
The following is a response to a Twitter discussion concerning epistemological and ontological issues in the theist claim of an objective moral law. I am responding here to a theist’s criticism of my view of evolving morality which he does by means of a metaphysical argument derived from Aquinas’s metaphysical assertion of actus assendi and a questioning of Heidegger and Kant. You can see his presentation here:
Mr. Claramunt, I think you might be attributing certain positions in Sein und Zeit to me which I don’t hold. If Heidegger had only written Sein und Zeit and Was ist Metaphysic we wouldn’t still be reading him. His important work began with Holzwege, and to resolve the conflicts you claimed I will stay within the later Heidegger. Also, I take major aspects of Heidegger as a starting point for my own thinking, but develop along my own path and it may be necessary at times to distinguish between Heidegger’s thought and mine. I don’t think we need to revisit Kant at this point. I only brought him up to establish the idea of correspondence as a justification of ontic analysis, but it’s the ontological that’s at issue here. As for impenetrable hermeneutics, I think that issue is somewhat exaggerated, but it is important to appreciate that both Kant and Heidegger were stretching existing language or creating new language to bring into view new things for which we had no pre-existing language. I believe Heidegger was far more successful in that endeavor but as a result he can only be understood in German, which I assume you read.
You describe a contradiction between Sein existing only in Dasein’s understanding of Sein and the impossibility of Dasein preceding Sein. That certainly is a contradiction, but not what Heidegger proposed. It seems to me you are conflating Being and World as thought by Heidegger.
Sein precedes Dasein and was always existent. Dasein occurs in Being and as a part of Being as the being that is conscious of being-there. We as Dasein and part of Being are tasked to be the consciousness of Being – Being in self-regard and self-experience. As such our most authentic activity is appreciation of what Being reveals to us as a revelation which itself is grounded in Being. Being exists, as is its nature, whether we provide its consciousness or not, but the World doesn’t, and it is this worlding of the world that you conflate with Being in your contradiction. The world is an Ereignis, something that cannot be understood in translation in the Heideggerian sense, but combines connotations of authenticity, ownership, and occurrence. Man participates in this occurrence of World as one of four essential elements (das Geviert): Erde, Himmel, die Göttlichen and die Sterblichen. Dasein is the mortal and limited being whose dwelling is limited to the earth for a while but intimates in Being’s revelations the eternality of the sky and the godhead which form the core of Being and ground of all things. The godhead does not consist of sentient gods but non-sentient striving from its own nature, much like Nietzsche’s Wille. Through us, however, it develops consciousness and speaks through us when we speak poetically. This brings us to your introduction of Aquinas’s actus essendi.
The key to understanding the difference between Being and actus essendi is to keep in mind Heidegger’s insistence on steadfastly not retreating to metaphysics, which is always ungrounded as a product of imagination rather an authentic thinking of Being in the world. Instead, we are to remain silent before the unknowable/unspeakable rather than jumping to metaphysical assertions. This is difficult for followers of Medieval Scholastic philosophy, which is expressly metaphysical in its approach. Aquinas tried to explain individuation of essence observed in the things of the phenomenal world through the imposition of a metaphysical actor (God) who bestowed physical existence of his possession of perfect essence of things as a separate act for each individuated occurrence. Thus, there is one perfect essence of man, for example, but each man in the world of substance is an individuated instance of this perfect essence. Due to the imperfection of the substantial world, each differs from the other to some degree, but all are effects of the willful act of the metaphysical god and representations of the undifferentiated perfect essence.
You are right that Heidegger refrains from thinking of Being as God, and for the obvious reason that it would be a step backwards into the false clarity of metaphysics. To posit the essence of Being as a metaphysical essence and assign to it characteristics would be to speak where we should remain silent since we would be speaking inauthentically about what we cannot know. Being exists only in this physical realm as a manifold which we perceive piecemeal, authentically (poetically) as things as they are revealed in our encounter, or inauthentically as objects of ontic (metaphysical) understanding. When we experience the thing authentically, we do so absent the metaphysical error of essence/existence. When we inauthentically look at the object in ontic analysis we obliterate essence entirely. Science and technology tether themselves to this ontic analysis while theology separates essence from Being and mislocates it to a metaphysical illusion which ironically leads us inevitably to the technological reduction of modernity.
Heidegger sees pre-Socratic philosophers as the last of authentic thinkers in the West, who rightly understand logos as word experienced in the resonance of poetry. These thinkers were betrayed by later philosophers who subverted poetic thinking by removing the poetry and focusing instead on reason, thereby turning logos into logic. The first fatal step to metaphysics occurred around the time of Socrates which changed the ontological understanding of A is A to A=A, the latter turning A into an object without essence that can be individuated over and over. Instead of this tree in its being and that tree in its own being, we have a metaphysical perfect essence of trees that can be thought of as equal and additive. It is the occurrence of this error in Aquinas for which Heidegger provides the remedy.
The illusion of objective morality is an artifact of this obsolete metaphysics. There is no metaphysical moral perfection. Essence, which is the only ground of truth, is a manifold physical existence in constant alteration. Since only essence can ground truth and essence only exists physically as Being, to know morality requires a new thinking into our own nature as an integral part of Being itself. It is there for us to encounter if we open ourselves to its revelations. Hints are in the holy commune of family gatherings, the kindness we show others, etc. It is common among all humans as we all participate in the same Being. It is a metaphysical error to interpret that commonality as something objective outside our consciousness. The only path forward is to understand it as it appears in the worlding of this world. We only do that poetically through the recovery of the fullest meaning of logos. Meanwhile, Being seems to be having its own way without our notice. Since historicity is an element of World, we can trace a direction in our understanding of morality over the millennia which appears to evolve toward more inclusion, empathy, respect for individuality and freedom. There are setbacks and fitful advances, but over time the trajectory reveals itself.
To SJ Thomason: Why Ontology Really Matters.
(A response to her essay: Moral Values and Duties are Universal, Objective, and Grounded in a Benevolent God)
Thomason attempts to argue there is an objective and universal moral law given to us by the Christian god. This is an ontological assertion that must first be clarified before moving to its descriptions or conclusions. She does give a nod to that requirement at the beginning, which I will explore in detail, then moves on to a very long and superficial overview of writers and schools of though of varying degrees of importance, all of which could have been omitted and won’t be detailed here, and closes with a claim for Aquinas’s Medieval Scholastic notion of Christian Synderesis. I think her argument would have been tighter had she skipped the meandering overviews and moved directly from an ontological inquiry to the conclusion for Synderesis, but would still have failed from its fundamental flaw, which she shares with almost every writer on morality that has come before here: an inauthentic ontological grounding of morality.
Ontology is the question of Being. Arguably the greatest thinker of Being, Martin Heidegger, was asked toward the end of his life why he had never written anything about morality, to which he answered that we don’t yet even know the right questions to ask. As Heidegger showed more forcefully than anyone, it is only with the right questions in mind that we have any hope of penetrating Being. Past writers on morality, with the possible exception of David Hume, have failed in that initial effort and as a result moral philosophy has been a continuous story of failure. Instead of any real inquiry into being, which implies the essence of morality and man within Being, past attempts have skirted the question by either facile metaphysical assertion of a god, or by ontic/technological and thereby superficial classifications and measurements. Religious writers have generally been among the former, while Utilitarians and Consequentialists have been among the latter, and both cases evaded the ontological question, rendering the ontological grounding that some claimed merely illusory. But then, if even Heidegger didn’t know the questions to ask, we could hardly expect them to either. Sadly, they also lacked Heidegger’s scruples about remaining silent before that which cannot be spoken.
As Thomason approaches this essential question, she gives a naïve and incomplete description of ontology:
“Moral ontology refers to whether moral values and duties objectively exist independently of people and are to be discovered by people. Ontology is defined as a branch of metaphysics that covers the nature of being. Moral ontology focuses on whether a standard of good and bad values or right and wrong duties exists.”
Her presuppositions in the above statement are what doom her analysis and conclusions. Before getting to the question of moral ontology, let’s remind ourselves of what ontology is to begin with: Why does anything exist at all? From that yet unanswerable question we move to particular things encountered in the world and question the if and how of their existence. For our purposes here, the question is morality unqualified: does it exist and if so how? The how includes its nature, meaning to us, and how it is grounded in Being itself. Thomason begins with the fallacy of bifurcation by reducing the question to morality as objectively existing or invented by man. She errs again in that last sentence by limiting the possibility of morality to a standard and duties, which she does to detour us onto the path leading to objective laws. Since we are at the beginning of our journey, however, any presumption of objectivity or formality of law is worse than merely premature; it closes off any possibility of finding the right path, i.e. the danger of asking the wrong questions.
By skipping the necessary thinking of the essense of morality she merely asserts an objective moral law grounded in the god of the bible. This is the sort of metaphysical flight of fancy we were to have overcome by now but persists to this day among supernaturalists. To this metaphysical invention she merges the superficial discoveries of the ontic/scientific theories of social scientists through the notion of Christian Synderesis, which she borrows from Zollo, Pellegrini and Ciappei (2017):
“Despite the different sophistications of the utilitarian approach, a common element of all these theories is that the agent is rational and able to evaluate the situation and its outcome. Definitely, such requisites are not met by talking about intuition, especially the ability to forecast and choose the preferable outcomes. Conversely, universalism imposes that every act is performed according to general and transcendental moral principles (Kant, Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, ed. orig. 1785; 1959)” (Zollo et al., 2017, p. 695).
The authors used an influential Christian moral social doctrine, synderesis, to bridge the gap between the two viewpoints. Synderesis is “an innate human habit that fosters moral judgment and triggers the virtue of practical reason” (Zollo et al., 2017, p. 682). Synderesis is the “correct habit that regulates intuition due to its innate nature and it is present in every individual.” (Zollo, Pellegrini and Ciappei, 2017, p. 690). It is our conscience.
In other words, morality is a synthesis of innate moral principles and cultural interpretation from these principles. At no point, however, was there any real thinking about the if and how of these principles, but merely assumed on the observation that all societies have the same basic moral values but interpreted differently. We could assume from that there would be closer and lesser interpretations of this objective and immovable law among the different cultures, although no such laws were ever really shown to exist. The variability of interpretation among cultures could yet arise as something other than variation from a law – an open question since we never really discovered the if and how of morality, and thus know nothing of its grounding. Instead, Thomason merely reasserts a metaphysical claim for which we have no knowledge. We see this error play out as she concludes:
These findings support the assertion that we have a conscience and a moral compass, which direct us to goodness. It follows that the source of our conscience is a benevolent, transcendent moral lawgiver. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul stated the following in Romans (2:15): “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
Her conclusion is a perfect encapsulation of the failure of moral thought through the present as the failure to ask the right questions. So, what might the right questions look like?
What in the essence of man would give rise to morality? This question is critical because we can only judge morality for man from our own nature. If we had the nature of a crocodile our sense of morality would derive from something quite different.
Is man as an evolving being in possession of evolved feelings that in adapting him for survival have the effect of what we feel as morality?
How would that faculty of morality actually work and why would it be susceptible to varying interpretations over time and place? What does the discernable arc of morality over the time from Leviticus and Deuteronomy to apparent greater value of individuality, tolerance and forgiveness reveal to us about the nature of morality and man?
And most fundamental and difficult of all, what in Being grounds this morality? Is there intention in Being toward which we evolve, and if so, what does that imply about genes themselves? Nobody yet has fathomed this genetic mystery as an expression of the essential nature of existence.
It would be so much more interesting to see apologists such as Thomason grapple with these questions first, and if not, then remain silent before what is not yet revealed in Being.
The Philosophical Naivety of Alvin Plantinga and SJ Thomason’s Failure to Restore the God of the Gaps
This is a response to a blog by SJ Thomason:
SJ announces in the first paragraph:
“The intention of this blog is to offer reasons to reject naturalism and scientism.”
Unsaid but revealed at the end of her blog is the additional intent of claiming validity for god of the gaps arguments with this abolition of science. She starts with a philosophical statement by Alvin Plantinga to support a claim that human intellect alone cannot ground the validity of science. From there she borrows from William Lain Craig a list of things she asserts science can’t explain and ends with an uninformed attempt to align the big bang with the creation myth in Genesis. Her misrepresentation of physics and cosmology is too obvious to require treatment here. But as she starts out with philosophy, I’ll take the opportunity to address the fundamental philosophical issue that is rarely addressed but critical to the discussion.
She quotes a passage by Alvin Plantinga from his book “Naturalism Defeated”:
“But if naturalism is true, there is no God, and hence no God (or anyone else) overseeing our development and orchestrating the course of our evolution. And this leads directly to the question whether it is at all likely that our cognitive faculties, given naturalism and given their evolutionary origin, would have developed in such a way as to be reliable, to furnish us with mostly true beliefs. Darwin himself expressed this doubt: “With me,” he said, “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
This is fairly straightforward as far as it goes. There is a long line of skeptics concerning our direct understanding of reality, including Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, and to a lesser extent, Heidegger. Kant famously proposed that time and space were no more than subjective senses and that innate a priori reason governed our ordering of sense data from the external world so we could construct some sense of our surroundings in our imagination. Contemporary neuroscience expands on Kant’s basic concept, with leading researchers such as Donald Hoffman describing our minds as a type of computer screen interface that presents our surroundings to us not as they are, but as what could be easily and quickly understood for practical use; an evolutionary adaptation that enabled our survival on the Savannah and later led to our domination of the planet. The things of our understanding don’t exist as we imagine them, just as the icons on our computer screens don’t look anything like the streams of bits they represent. Even space and time are merely subjective strategies for ordering sense data. In fact, our minds did not evolve to render truth, but rather to give quick icons of only what is practically important at the moment. We really have no idea what reality would be outside our subjective representations.
This certainly limits scientific understanding, and these limits are at the very heart of contemporary physics where logic, basic causality and 3d space no longer suffice to understand what really happens at the level of string theory. But most importantly, it doesn’t invalidate science either. There is some correspondence between our rational representations from sense data and something outside our imagination, and that correspondence is infinitely useful. As Hoffman puts it, if he sees a bus hurtling toward him, he gets out of the way because, while he doesn’t take the representation literally, he does take it seriously. The correspondence is what enables us to survive. This evolved understanding works well within the narrow band of the Newtonian realm in which it evolved, but less so the more we go beyond that range, either macro or micro.
So Plantinga is correct that science will not explain the entire universe, and what it does explain is only a computer screen representation of the bits. From there, though, he reveals his own philosophical naivety when he draws the false choice between science (which he assumes to equate to naturalism) and faith in metaphysical divinity. If we expand naturalism to mean simply understanding drawn from the physical world, we can then allow another critical addition to our modes of understanding, and one far more primordial than reason and science.
Long before we developed our capacity for reason, we knew the world by feeling. As we absorbed the vibrations around us those vibrations (e.g. sound and light) resonated within us causing moods. We can still see this relationship in the German language where the word for mood – “Stimmung” literally means voicing or tuning. It implies the sympathetic vibrations of our own strings with that from the world outside. When theists insist science cannot explain beauty, meaning or morality, they are quite right. But then science was never intended to be the proper mode of understanding for such things. We have always understood these through “Stimmung”, and as we refine our aesthetics, we refine our relation to the world through beauty, meaning and morality. Nietzsche saw our greatest mode of relating to the vibratory essence of the Will of the universe to be through music. Heidegger saw it through poetry, which is really originating language before the music is wrung out of it – logos in its original pre-Socratic and pre-rational meaning. These enable our most primordial connection to reality, and even today precedes our rational arguments. As Burke knew, rational argument is almost always in service of justifying our feelings.
Morality is a case in point. Mammals in general, and pronouncedly among primates, have evolved innate sensibilities that have enabled greater cooperation, not only within a group, but outside also. This has enabled our creation of civilizations and determined our morals. It appears that we share with other mammals an innate sense of empathy and fairness.
David Hume was onto something important when he described morality as a sense to be cultivated. A matter of taste improved over time. The thing that sets us apart from beasts as civilized beings. Over the millennia we have refined these sensibilities in a way that traces an arc toward more acceptance of others, greater cooperation, and caring. We have come far from the Biblical barbarity of genocide, slavery, killing of non-believers, and eye for an eye revenge. From our standpoint these discarded practices literally cause us sensible distress. Disgust. Offense to our more refined sensibility. As such, morality is not objective. It wouldn’t undergo continuous refinement if it were, but looking back it most undeniably has. Being pre-rational it also cannot by determined through reason as Kant believed nor does it essentially consist of law. It cannot be rationally characterized or derived. But it is real and is grounded in our own nature, which itself is grounded in Being. Through our contemplation of this nature and refinement of these sensibilities we arrive toward the only authentic morality. This is not man as fallen, but man ascending from apes. We now can more clearly interpret the myth of the Garden of Eden as Eve bravely eating the apple of knowledge and daring the ascent of man from the dim delight of animals to the conscious participation with Being.
When Heidegger was asked why he never wrote anything on morality, he answered that we don’t yet even know the right questions to ask. Ethics has been a failed enterprise for the entire history of philosophy. But at our moment in time, the question of morality, along with the question of meaning, approach us as the most urgent matters. As Heidegger wrote, we are too late for the gods and too soon for Being. But today it is time. And we do know the questions to ask. Meaning and morality can only be determined out of our own nature, and our nature authentically thought as an integral aspect of Being. And if our nature is such that we sense that empathy, fairness and tolerance are characteristics of the good, then for humans that is morality. The question is: How can our nature enable us to live more authentically with Being. The question takes us along a path where we carefully consider what already has been revealed in the moral arc to this day. And with that consideration in mind look to what Being reveals to us going forward and in that revelation remain steadfast in the refusal to resort to metaphysical explanations for what yet remains concealed. To remain silent in the presence of what cannot yet be spoken is our task. No gods for the gaps or imagined otherworldly solutions. All the answers are here before us on this path if we have the ears to hear them. And the courage to dare the consequences. The answer will come from a philosophical/poetic inquiry of the revelations, firmly grounded in the Being of this very world, and not reduced to scientific measurement and classification. SJ is quite right that science cannot answer these two paramount questions. Nor can metaphysical imagining of gods and their laws.
In not considering an ontological approach, Plantinga and SJ continue a naivety that traps them in the old, discarded and failed attempts and mired in the false choice of science or metaphysics.
SJ’s final move is to resurrect the long-ago refuted Kalam Cosmetological Argument and then attempt the absurd trick of reconciling the big bang to the biblical creation myth. This failure rests on her misunderstanding of cosmology itself. We need not repeat all of that here because it all collapses from the failure of P2 of the argument itself:
P2: The universe (time, space, and matter) began to exist.
The simplest criticism of that premise is that it is an unwarranted assumption. First of all, the big bang did not simply come about out of nothing. There is debate among physicists about whether it came about from an infinitely dense singularity, a quantum field, or from no big bang at all but rather eternal permutation of local pockets of order within an always existing greater universe. But no theory posits an absence of preexisting energy or material and thus there is no real beginning. Just transformation of something that simply always existed.
There is no justification for assuming a first cause to the universe. From that, there is no need to insert a god into a gap. Theists often reject this by claiming it is illogical to assume something always existed without a cause. Perhaps, but Plantinga and SJ themselves began with a critique of reason’s inability to explain reality.
The Willful Dishonesty of William Laine Craig and the Silliness of his Followers
This is in response to a video on Twitter which laughably claims that William Laine Craig humiliated Christopher Hitchens in a debate.
Christopher Hitchens tries to debate William Lane Craig, INSTANTLY REGRETS it… youtu.be/jPlbrdxKTCk via
William Laine Craig is a practiced debater of some skill, but because he is in the position of defending a losing proposition, he is also thoroughly and, I’m convinced, purposely dishonest. Because his target audience lacks the sophistication to detect the sophistry, he relies almost exclusively on bald strawmen and false premises. Seeing the excerpt in the above video as a victory for WLC is an example of that lack of sophistication.
Hitchens made two valid points in the short segment allotted him in the video:
- It is incumbent on the affirmative to establish the existence of something since it’s impossible to prove a negative, and without that being established there is no good reason to believe it.
- The immense time and space of the universe, and the very late and brief appearance of humans on a planet that isn’t even an obscure speck in the cosmos makes no sense if humanity was the focus of design of the universe.
To the first point, Hitchens responds to one of WLC’s signature strawmen: “It is often said… that atheists can prove the nonexistence of god. This in fact very slightly but crucially misrepresents what we’ve always said. There’s no plausible…no evidentiary reason to believe that there is such an entity and that all observable phenomena… are explicable without the hypothesis…”
Here Hitchens answers the common evasion repeated here by WLC that since atheism is a belief it needs to prove itself and disprove god, an obvious misdirection from the theists’ burden of proof for the affirmative which they can never adequately supply.
Hitchens then pivots to the absurdity of the fine-tuning fallacy in Intelligent Design. Whereas WLC targets an unsophisticated audience with exaggeration and strawmen, Hitchens is accustomed to addressing intellectual equals with understatement and subtlety appropriate to their discernment as he does in his description of the tautology on which fine-tuning rests:
“It’s also easier to believe if we are in the happy position of knowing the outcome. We are here, but there’s a fallacy lurking somewhere in there too, is there not?”
Of course, that lurking fallacy is the tautology inherent in having to assume a design in order to conclude a design – a tautology that we will see WLC committing right out in the open in just a bit.
The childish editing of the video then attempts to mock Hitchens’ conclusion that he does not believe in any god or afterlife. In a crude imitation of the more subtle WLC, the editor merely dismisses and ridicules what he cannot overcome with argument as he transitions to WLC’s response.
WLC claims to defend two basic contentions:
- There is no good argument that atheism is true
- Evolution is not incompatible with theism and Intelligent Design
He begins by merely repeating the evasion of burden of proof and the strawman characterization of the atheist position. He then pivots to evolution and begins with a strawman argument never made here by Hitchens that evolution disproves god. WLC implicitly concedes the truth of evolutionary theory by retreating to a claim that it is perfectly compatible with biblical instruction, once again obfuscating by responding to an argument Hitchens did not make.
WLC then transitions to Hitchens’ remarks on the absurdity of humanity as the reason for creation of the universe. He attempts this by establishing Intelligent Design on the flimsy basis of improbability while evading the “fallacy lurking in there somewhere”. The editor of the video then indulges in more childish celebration of this fallacy as he cuts to a shot of Hitchens looking on in bemusement at WLC’s evasion. I assume the intention of that cut was to give the false impression that Hitchens thought himself defeated.
WLC then resorts to an amazing bit of Trumpian projection of his own weakness onto his opponent. Referring to proponents of evolution, he declaims: “[they] can’t follow where the evidence leads, [their] presupposition determines the outcome”. Here he inverts the scientific method of building evolutionary theory on observable data with his own tautological method of determining design. In an incredibly bold move that reveals his assumption of ignorance among his followers, he clearly illustrates this inversion by openly displaying the tautology of his argument:
“By contrast, if there is a fine-tuner and creator of the universe, then already in the initials conditions of the big bang you already have an elaborately designed universe that permits the evolution…”
Yes, exactly. I further elaborate on the fallacy and illusion of fine-tuning here:
WLC then addresses Hitchens’ point of the insignificance of humanity in relation to the universe through a jaw dropping instance of triviality. In response to the idea of man’s brief appearance after 13.8 billion years and the incomprehensible smallness of our planet in a universe 156 billion light years wide he manages to say with a straight face: ‘…[it is] only a concern to someone with limited time or limited resources.”
WLC ends with further strawmen and obfuscation by misrepresenting Hitchens’ argument that there is no valid argument leading from a deistic creator to the theistic god of Christianity. WLC only alludes to an argument that Christian theism builds on deism but fails to provide it. He concludes by referring to other arguments for the existence of god, presumably the ontological and moral arguments he constantly repeats other places, but contrary to his claim these arguments are both fallacious and dependent on false premises. I would imagine Hitchens pointed that out at some point, but the video forgot to show those points. I certainly would have debunked WLC in that way.
The Metaphor of Genetic Code
This is in response to a Twitter debate about DNA being proof of god’s existence. SJ Thompson was unable to respond, so she called in an apologist, Sy Garte, who claims a background in biochemistry. Unfortunately, he backed away from debating the issue. Instead he gave an astoundingly poor response on YouTube where he wouldn’t face a direct refutation. You can see it here:
Those who advocate creationism, sometimes under cover of the term “intelligent design”, claim the genetic “code” as evidence, since coded information cannot exist without a coder. This resonates to an extent with the fallacious and long debunked prime mover argument. But as prime mover rests on a faulty cosmological premise and the fallacy of special pleading, the genetic code argument rests on the faulty understanding or intentional misuse of metaphor.
Metaphor is commonly used in science and most other intellectual endeavors as a useful tool for presentation and comprehension. Even the most apt metaphors, however, lack complete mapping to the thing compared and all metaphors break down at some point. In all cases the metaphor is only a comparison to a thing, and not the thing itself. The charmed quark, despite its quirkiness, is not under a magic spell. The Higgs boson, sometimes called the God Particle because it enables other particles to have mass, is not really a divine creator. The big bang was an explosive inflation, but no atmosphere existed to carry sound waves. The Milky Way contains no dairy product. And nucleotides are not letters forming a code, although thinking of them in that way makes description of their function easier to grasp.
Semiotics customarily describes code as a set of symbols operating under a set of rules that stand for another object for the purpose of transmitting information. This entails an encoding process, transmission, and a decoding process. In genetics, nucleotides are assigned a letter and are thought of as information for forming proteins and for self-reproduction. It is a useful way to conceive of the process, but when compared to the definition of code there are also important differences. These differences aren’t problematic insofar as the metaphor is commonly used in biology but can lead to error when stretched beyond that limit.
Creationists like to seize on a literal meaning of code and information to make the argument that nobody has ever encountered encoded information that had no author and therefore, the genetic code must have a creator who designed it. The problem is that claim begins right where the metaphor breaks down and is no longer apt. The nucleotide is not a symbol that stands for something else, but is the thing supposedly stood for. Genes do not encode something that is then transmitted to a decoder. Rather, nucleotides are simply molecules that do what genetic material does –reproduce. They are physical templates of themselves. In addition, they mutate to create new templates – nobody designs them. Instead of encoding, we have four billion years of reproduction, mutation and natural selection. This eliminates the first element of code as referenced above: the encoding process. DNA reproduces and serves as a template for RNA to produce proteins, which is not at all the same as transmitting information but rather a physical act of the material itself. There is no transmission of code, but simply the chemical process. The RNA is not decoding anything but rather is mechanically producing according to a template that itself is the product of mutation and evolution. This is clearly a mechanical molecular process which has no code, encoder or decoder.
The above explanation is what I had proposed to Sy Garte, and to which he chose not to engage. Judging from his responses on the video, it is obvious why he demurred.
1. His first response is “People have been saying for a long time that it is a code”. Sure, but that doesn’t address the issue of metaphor, but only implies that the metaphor has been in use for a long time.
2. “Every textbook says it is a code.” Again, that doesn’t address the issue of it being used as a metaphor. In addition, biology textbooks aren’t the first authority I would consult on issues of semiotics and semantics.
3. He claims that DNA “means something else”. Unfortunately, he fails to tell us what that something else is.
4. “It is the first instance of encoded information in the universe. It is something is something that never occurred before.” Of course, that begs the question of if it is a code at all. Moreover, he must be ignorant of quantum fields, where something like the Higgs field does a similar function to create mass through the Higgs Boson. In neither case is a code involved, but merely a physical process.
5,” We don’t know how DNA was arrived at.” Garte has apparently neglected to keep up with the research. Abiogenesis has shown how precursors to RNA and DNA occur naturally and how they can lead to the formation of nucleotides. There is no need for a creator, and the development of DNA is nothing at all like the writing of a code.
Garte totally evaded addressing the central question of what a code is, but rather lamely responded textbooks say it is a code. He claims to have won debates on this, although he dodged one with me and I see no record of his having done so with others. I would be more than happy to debate this live at his earliest convenience.
Jordan Peterson’s Idea of God
In this short video Jordan Peterson explains his idea of god, and identifies the shallowness that afflicts the New Atheists while remaining blind to his own superficiality:
Nobody who has seriously studied Nietzsche and the thinkers who came after can watch that video without cringing. Peterson is a shallow man pandering to semi-educated and shallow followers. He is unequipped to fathom the profundity of a thinker like Nietzsche, whom he puts at the center of his thinking. Are New Atheists shallow too? Well, many of them are for the reason Peterson somewhat articulates: they don’t recognize the fullness of the human psyche and the mysteries of existence. But they do recognize what Peterson doesn’t: the old myths no longer suffice for an explanation of the universe or the human psyche.
The seminal act of Nietzsche occurred in The Gay Science, with the announcement by the Madman of the death of God and initiation of the vertigo that has embroiled us ever since. Peterson does have a tenuous grasp of that, but no appreciation of the implications. In his naivete he believes that we can reorient ourselves by reclaiming the shell of the old god. For him, this shell of god becomes a psychological force one moment, and the highest ideal a person holds in the next moment. Neither of these is anything like an actual supernatural entity, but since there is no such thing our concepts of gods must have been manmade anyway. Therefore, Peterson would have us continue our pretending. Such an evasion can satisfy nobody.
Peterson’s shallowness further cripples his plan for how we would go about this. His project entails a resurrection of the dormant logos, but he has no understanding of what that means. The dormant logos slept long before Christianity and won’t be found in the bible. The dormant logos came alive through the pre-Socratics, when logos meant a full experience of the truth of Being and went dormant when Socrates attenuated it to logic through words. Peterson is right that we need to resurrect logos, but fails to appreciate the immensity of that task. It isn’t merely taking on the shells of dead visions. It is restoring logos as poetic introduction of Being into our world.
Christians, to their credit, do have a sense of the profound and mysterious calling of existence that science rules out of bounds, even though this calling provides the most important and prevalent aspect of human dwelling on this earth. Christians are not afflicted with the shallowness of the state, science, or postmodernism. But they are paralyzed by fear. They are the direct descendants of the wailing Madman. What Nietzsche knew better than anyone is that going back is impossible, and individuality is the key going forward.
Peterson mistakenly ascribes the rise of the individual to the New Testament despite the fact that the individual was least tolerated when the Church ruled Europe and didn’t really attain any value until the Enlightenment. Nietzsche brought the prominence of the individual to its conclusion: the individual must attain the strength and courage to find his own values for himself in accordance with the spirit of Will, which Heidegger later expands as Being. Life is most essentially esthetic, but esthetic is not merely arbitrary. The artist doesn’t create, but wills along with Will and sings its songs. For Nietzsche, we experience the true esthetic when we are in tune with the music of Will, and those who can withstand its power are the ones who will regain their balance and survive this transitional era of the great vertigo. Nietzsche sings this revelation in the Drunken Song in Also Sprach Zarathustra:
O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht, die tiefe Mitternacht?
“Ich schlief, ich schlief -,
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: –
Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
Tief ist ihr Weh -,
Lust – tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit -,
– Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!”
And thus, our values become those of the eternal yearning; not of the morbid formulation of sin. But just as importantly, they cannot be found by clinging to the shallowness of state, science, or postmodern resentment. The depths of the eternal await the brave who laugh as they dance to its music. There is no music in science, and only dust of decomposition in Christianity.
The Illusion of Fine Tuning
Note: This was written in response to an apologist who asked for debate and discussion partners on her YouTube channel, but ignored my offer to debate the ID claim of fine tuning, much as she has evaded debates on other topics:
Now that I’ve finally figured out how to best show videos on Zoom, I’ll be making more commentaries. If you’d like to see commentary on any #Christian or #atheist videos or debates, let me know. If you’d like to join me in a video, let me know that too! I’m always up for that.
Jeffrey Williams@jswillims21Replying to @Lead1225
Any time. I’m just sitting here under my bridge.2:59 PM · Oct 26, 2019·Twitter Web App
Anyway, here is my response.
Of all the fallacious arguments for intelligent design, fine-tuning of the universe is the most obvious to anyone trained in logic – it is a tautology. You have to assume that man was intended by a designer in order to conclude man is the intent of the designer. It takes a few steps to demonstrate, so I’ll bid goodbye to all the apologists who will dismiss this at this point and stop reading. For the rest of us:
At the moment of the big bang an array of possible physical laws, constants and causal chains existed; all equally improbable – yet the universe had to follow one of these possibilities. No matter which one occurred, it would be just as improbable as any of those that weren’t actualized. And whatever happened along that path simply happened because it was possible under that set of laws, constants and the causal chain. None of this implies intent.
Take the example of the Powerball Jackpot. The chances of any one ticket winning are estimated at about 1 in 292 million. Any one of the millions of players faces astronomically improbable odds, yet ultimately somebody wins. From this perspective it is obvious to most of us that it is merely a matter of chance. If we were to assume this winner was intended by god, however, it all looks very different in retrospect. We would be tempted to say it is too overwhelmingly improbable that each tiny movement of the balls in the basket could have come about by chance for that particular person to win (or that our universal constants came about by chance in just the way allows man to live), therefore the path of the balls and related conditions must have been designed by god. Yet most of us realize it was simply an accident of chance for the drawing of balls that enabled that particular winner to beat the odds while millions of others lost, although that winner’s chances were no better than the other contestants. It requires a divine act if we consider how impossible it would be to achieve the target result. When we remove the illusion of a target, however, it appears as mere happenstance.
Now you might object that the chances of our universe having just the right constants for life are much higher than 1 in 292 million, and that might be right. There are 26 constants that define our universe, and if some of them were just slightly different the universe would not sustain life. Estimates for the number of possible types of universes vary greatly, from 6 to in the trillions under string theory. But the part that many people fail to grasp is it doesn’t matter. Whether at the beginning of the big bang there were six, 292 million or a trillion possible ways the universe could be configured, one still had to be realized at whatever odds. And once it is realized, the predictive odds no longer matter. We are here discussing this because our universe just happened to be one of those that could sustain life at this point in time. Exactly like our Powerball winner, we are here because the actualized constants allowed us to be. We are an effect of the realized constants. The universe is not here to enable us. In fact, there is no reason to believe the universe is here for any reason at all, just as there is no reason to believe the universe is here to enable our Powerball winner.
As I pointed out at the start, the universe only appears to be intelligently designed from something akin to a narcissistic human perspective, and as with all narcissistic perceptions it is an illusion. The universe had already existed for 14 billion years before we evolved on this planet. Homo Sapiens have been here for about 200,000 years, which isn’t even a nano-second on the cosmic scale, and we won’t be here much longer, although the universe will continue for eons without us. Our outside limit is when either the sun ends in a glorious burst that will incinerate the entire solar system, or when our galaxy finally collides with Andromeda Galaxy, although we are likely to disappear long before that as a result of a large meteor or comet strike, nuclear destruction, or other catastrophic changes to the planet. In total, we were hardly even a blip. In addition, the universe is about 93 billion light years wide. We aren’t even a particle on the cosmic scale. It is inconceivable that all of that was designed just for us. We aren’t even a noticeable feature of the universe outside of our own perspective.
The fine-tuning argument for intelligent design is but a tautology that any college students completing their first year should recognize. We can only conclude the universe was designed for us if we assume we are the purpose of the universe. External to that narcissism, we are but a brief and tiny event enabled by the happenstance of the constants of an oblivious universe.
Bertuzzi’s Failed Rebuttal
Carmen Bertuzzi is a Christian apologist with a YouTube channel called “Capturing Christ”. On Twitter he recently linked to a video, entitled “No, There’s No Special Pleading”, where he attempts to defend the long-debunked Kalam Cosmological Argument in response to a video by another YouTuber, Stephen Woodford of Rationality Rule, that demonstrates the fallacies of special pleading, false premises and argument from ignorance (god of the gaps). Bertuzzi accuses Woodford of creating strawmen and fallacious arguments as he merely repeats the ham-handed sophistry of the strawmen and fallacies of William Lane Craig and Edward Feser. I asked Bertuzzi for an opportunity to debate his claims but got no response. It appears he prefers to respond in videos where he is protected from counterargument. Now that I created this blog, I might as well reply here. Everybody, including Bertuzzi, is welcome to reply here. First, it will be useful to watch Bertuzzi’s short video:
He starts his attempted refutation of special pleading with an anodyne description of this fallacy as an exception to a generally accepted rule without justification comprising three elements:
Bertuzzi takes William Lane Craig’s version of the Kalam, which goes:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
- The universe began to exist;
- Therefore.: the universe has a cause.
This first stage argument is an obvious case of special pleading when seen in light of the Aristotelian argument of prime mover on which it is based. Aristotle attempted to solve the problem of infinite regress of causality by positing an unmoved first mover. In this form, the special pleading is easy to describe:
General Rule: Everything that exists has a cause
Exception: The universe was caused by an unmoved mover (uncaused cause)
Explanation: The world must have had a first cause.
The problem is Aristotle’s claim that everything has a cause was based on observation. The exception is exceptional because based on observation no such thing exists. The justification is really a circular restatement of the major premise which is no more than a metaphysical supposition. But since we cannot observe any unmoved mover, we can equally posit other unobservable metaphysical propositions, such as: since we have never seen anything being created, but only transformed, creation is impossible, and the matter and energy of our universe simply always existed. Nobody knows if that is true, but it is at least as plausible as an unmoved mover, even more so as we need not introduce another metaphysical being.
The Kalam revision enables Craig, Feser, and others to slip in a claim of category error by changing the issue of observable causality and the implied problem of infinite regress to an issue of divinity. Aristotle was trying to solve a proto-scientific problem of infinite regress. Apologists are trying to formulate a proof of god. Their seemingly slight alteration to “everything that begins to exist” from “everything that exists” allows them to perform the sleight of hand by implying that if there are things that begin to exist there must also be something that always existed. The category error they claim is that we cannot apply observable generalities to a non-observable god. But in so doing, they disclose the circularity of their reasoning. The underlying reason for assuming the unmoved mover was to resolve a problem existing in our observable universe. The claim of the apologists comes down to: we posit something unobservable and the way we define this metaphysical proposition precludes you from criticizing it. Left unsaid is that it also precludes any compelling reason to accept it.
Feser and others resorted to the claim of category error because modern physics obliterates the premises that everything that exists has a cause and that the universe necessarily had a beginning. Theirs was a desperate attempt to put a protective wall around their argument. Since they aren’t really able to counter 21st century scientific discovery, they had no alternative but to claim it is irrelevant because they are talking about the category of divinity and nothing from the category of science can relate to that discussion. The dishonesty of this stance was revealed, however, when we brought to light the scientific basis of Aristotle’s original formulation which started the unmoved mover argument in the first place. The weakness of their position ultimately forces them to attempt to counter to the science anyway, as Bertuzzi does in this next step. Their poor or non-existent understanding of the physics, along with the weakness of their positions inevitably leads to appeal to ignorance, as we shall see.
Woodford begins to address the pertinent physics by noting a statement by physicist Sean Carroll that “Our understanding of the current laws of physics give out at that moment in time.” Specifically, we can model the universe all the way back to the 10-43 second after the Big Bang, after which central aspects, such as time and gravity, compute as infinite. Almost all physicists interpret that to mean that what existed prior to the big bang was absent our physical laws and time, and therefore unknowable. The major and very important exception is Roger Penrose, who believes those calculations are accurately describing the infinity of the universe going backward, which goes through endless re-birthing of the universe, and that our laws of physics and time always existed. Either way, we either can know nothing of the state of existence before the Big Bang other than that our physical laws and time were not present, rendering the idea of prime mover nonsensical, or there was no beginning which again renders prime mover moot.
Faced with this conundrum, Bertuzzi falsely accuses Woodford of the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam by ignoring the reasoning behind Caroll’s claim and counters with a physicist he naively believes to be a counter-example : He quotes Alexander Valenkin: “The answer to the question ‘did the universe have a beginning?’ is, ‘It probably did’. Without any evidence other than the claim there is no basis for such a model.”
Bertuzzi fails to recognize that the beginning of the universe is not the same question as the beginning of the stuff of the universe – the singularity before the Big Bang. Bertuzzi might be shocked to learn that in his book: Many worlds in One: The search for other universes, Valenkin presents the multiverse theory positing that the stuff of the universe is eternal and produces many universes out of quantum fields in a vacuum, each with unique laws, particles, and structures. While each universe has a beginning, the stuff of these universes always existed. He would be further surprised to learn that Valenkin does not believe in a personal god, finds the idea of a more abstract god pointless, and believes the laws of nature are adequate to explain existence.
After making this poor choice of counter-example, he flails even more desperately by claiming that Christians have a duty to reject the notion that causality cannot occur without time and space, thereby reclaiming the possibility of prime mover, on the basis of biblical scripture and points to the existence of angels as proof. I need add no more.
Argument From Ignorance
Inevitably, Bertuzzi retreats to god of the gaps after all. He begins with Craig’s second stage argument:
The universe has a cause of its beginning.
Therefore:This cause must be:
As we have seen, the conclusions are not tenable. We don’t know if the universe understood as the state of existence before the Big Bang had a beginning. There are plausible theories of how our universe came about through natural causes. The conclusion that the cause was personal appears out of nowhere and is not only unsupported but unsupportable. Perhaps sensing the impotence of Craig’s second stage argument, Bertuzzi offers his own:
1. If the cause of the universe were non personal, then classical spacetime would either not exist at all or be infinitely old.
2. This thing has been either creating universes over an infinite amount of time or not at all.
3. Science explains the world according to the laws of nature, but the beginning of the universe is the beginning of the laws of nature.
4. In other words, you can’t use science to explain the beginning of the universe. You have to use a person if you’re going to use anything at all.
5, Classical spacetime exists and is not infinitely old.
6. The cause of the universe is personal.
And there we have god of the gaps. Science can’t explain it so it must be god. Bertuzzi might protest that he provided an argument to prove his “it must be god”, but he has done no such thing. He begins by picking up from Craig’s odd conclusion of “personal” and descends from there. He bases his conclusion on the assertion that without “person” classical spacetime could not exist. In a way he wouldn’t expect, he’s probably right about that, but it reveals another gap in his understanding. It was Einstein who first described spacetime in The Special Theory of Relativity. The big problem here for Bertuzzi is Einstein didn’t believe time exists at all but was merely our subjective way of intuiting the universe. For Einstein, past, present and future existed as a static simultaneous unity outside time. But if Bertuzzi insists that if the cause of the universe were non-personal, then classical spacetime would either not exist at all or be infinitely old, I won’t argue. Einstein said it has no existence outside our subjective sense, and Penrose calculates the universe is infinitely old.
On the Question of Christianity as a Pillar of Western Civilization
This a piece I wrote for Eidos at the request of John Mark Reynolds rebutting the often heard claim that the West grew from the two pillars of Athens and Jerusalem. I contend that Christianity was a foreign graft onto the healthy body of Greek Civilization, and went through stages of malignancy and rejection.
I reject the claim that the west was founded on the two pillars of Greece and Jerusalem, but rather stems directly from the single source beginning with Thales of Miletus around 500 BC and developed for the next 700 years through classical Greece and Rome, at which time a strange Asian religion was grafted onto it. When I ask Christians what of value in our beliefs today would we not have developed on the basis of our Greek heritage alone, they usually offer up dignity of the individual or democracy, or other concepts that clearly either date back to Ancient Greece or Enlightenment rationalism. When they switch to the more tenable province of the arts, I have to admit an influence. But through the arts we can also see how this graft clung firmly for centuries and appropriated all forms of art to its own purpose, the process of rejection taking place up through the enlightenment when the graft finally failed, and Nietzsche’s announcement some decades later that God had been killed by those rationalists.
I can appreciate La Cathedrale de Chartres, Bach and other authentic works of the Christian era because they presence a holiness in Being that always transcends the local religion. I can say the same for great Islamic works, such as authentic carpets and mosques. They all point to Being, but in the local dialect. Christianity’s influence on Western art began in the early Middle Ages, started to wane with Renaissance Humanism, and moved to the fringes with the Enlightenment – a long process of rejection. The late Middle Ages, dominated by the Church, showed their greatest poets in feverish nightmares of Hell and its various tortures; but with the Renaissance the vision turns to the universe and man’s place within. With Shakespeare, of whom it is often said he was certainly a catholic… or a pagan or an atheist, attention no longer centers on God, but rather on this nature of man and his measure of the world. Music clung to its religious tradition a bit longer, and we see Bach in the 17th century creating music for the glory of god through the Lutheran prism. His music is both profound and limited; within tight bounds there is an authentic passion, but also an imposed fussiness – the well-tempered constraint of dogma. Contrast that to Beethoven, whose former teacher, Haydn, attested to his atheism, while others described him as at most Deist or a Spinozan pantheist.
Beethoven’s work combines the great power of clashing galaxies, the lightness of the stars, and slow and uniquely profound passages with slightly discordant and disturbing bass lines that give hint of the chaos on which our brave foundation rests. His work is the most profound and fully cosmic experience of Being yet produced and signals the final emancipation of art from the strictures of religion. It’s direct experience of the scope, depth, and mystery of Being contains more authentic wisdom than Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity – something no earlier work of art saddled with religious dogma ever achieved.
But the world has since turned desolate, you might add. True enough. In section 125 of the Gay Science Nietzsche, through The Madman, announces the murder of God and the ensuing vertigo that yet today afflicts us:
“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Aren’t we perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Aren’t we straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it become colder? Isn’t more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s putrefaction? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives — who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games will we need to invent? Isn’t the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?”
The twilight of the gods is past, and in this dark midnight we search for the poem of Being. As for me? I’m chilling and laughing at the edge of the universe, where space and time escaped through the vanishing point; laughing and dancing with those crazy quarks and bosons. You never know what they’ll do next! And while you’re here, look over the edge! Don’t be afraid – I promise you’ll laugh too. There is no hell full of tortured souls down there after all.
We have yet to reorient ourselves and find a truer path to the grounding of Being. As Heidegger described our desolate time:
Wir kommen für die Götter zu spät und zu früh für das Sein, dessen angefangenes Gedicht ist der Mensch.